12 minutes reading time (2486 words)

Healthy technique for beginning students

Technique is such a broad term— thousands of pianists with different physical approaches to the instrument play well and (hopefully!) without injuries. But often when we discuss injury-free techniques, we are talking about advanced pianists playing extremely demanding repertoire. Very few of us, however, will ever teach students at this level —a great many of us routinely teach the "regular kids" in our home studios. How does all of this information on technique relate to teachers of average Janes and Joes? A great deal, actually. The best technique is one that has intelligent, careful uses of the body at its very foundation. (See also "Children get hurt, too!" by Jacqueline Herbein in the Jan/ Feb 2013 issue of Clavier Companion.) Waiting to teach healthy, efficient, and effective technique at the intermediate and advanced levels is way too late. At that point it is retraining—a very frustrating and sometimes dismal business. 

I have had several opportunities to see Marvin Blickenstaff demonstrate his approach to teaching good technique to the beginning student. His sessions have always been exciting, motivating, and chock full of great ideas; but later when I'm back in my studio, I can't remember everything he said and demonstrated. In this article he has generously agreed to share some of his terrific ideas for all of us to read, remember, and implement!

In the beginning

by Marvin Blickenstaff 

All of us have our favorite, well-tested approaches to the teaching of technique. We have special ways to start beginners on the correct path to efficient, comfortable playing. For our on-going students we have a curriculum of technical development, sometimes influenced and guided by a syllabus from a state or national organization. All of us teach transfer students, and the retraining of these students often has special challenges, for old habits are deeply ingrained. In contrast to the problems we sometimes face with the reconstruction of a transfer student, it is a special privilege to welcome beginning students into our studios and guide them along the paths of what we perceive as efficient, proper piano technique. There are many approaches. Most of us have developed our own methods based on how we were taught, what we have learned in workshops and intense training sessions, and our own teaching and playing experiences. My approach to elementary technique has been developed over the many years that I have taught privately and in groups of youngsters. I hope that these ideas will be of help to you. 

When I first meet with a group of beginning students, they are guided through a number of "ice-breaker" activities for socialization and allaying apprehension about this new learning experience. The students "research" the number of two and three-black-key groups, materials found in the piano, location of high sounds and low sounds, etc. During the first lesson we learn two rote pieces, taught primarily so that students leave the first lesson able to play some pieces. The first of these "Engine, Engine, Number 9," from Music Pathways Solos A, is a black-key piece played at a slower tempo, the second is "Ebeneezer Sneezer," from Lynn Freeman Olson's Our Small World. Eventually these rote pieces serve as reading preparation (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: “Ebeneezer Sneezer” from Our Small World, by Lynn Freeman Olson

Large motions first 

After differentiating between right and left hands (when pointing the thumbs towards each other, the LH forms a capital "L"), our first technical activity comes in the form of "fly swatters" and "knocks": 

  • Students are asked to grasp an imaginary fly swatter with the right hand and swat three times in "slow motion replay." They do the same with the left hand, and then hands together. We observe that, when swatting a fly, the arm moves in front of the elbow. 
  • They are then asked to imagine they are knocking on a friend's door and saying "knock, knock, knock— anybody home?" When knocking, the hand moves in front of the wrist. 

Thus, we are beginning our technical approach to the keyboard with large motions: forearm (fly swatters) and hand (knocks). To me, it is reasonable to approach each aspect of elementary instruction with this basic premise: proceed from the large to the small, from the exaggerated to the refined.

Beginning applications

In their first Home Practice assignment, students are asked to determine which technical approach (fly swatters or knocks) works best for the two rote pieces they have learned. Engine, Engine, Number 9 is a slow moving pentatonic tune on the black keys. Most students report that fly swatters work best for the slow piece. Ebeneezer Sneezer involves quick repeated tones on white keys, and students usually determine that knocks fit this piece best. In so doing, technical decisions are being made based on the gesture that best fits the tempo and movement. They are making wise technical decisions from the very first lesson—how wonderful! Beginning goals In their first lesson, students learn about sitting position and experience torso and arm relaxation. They are seated so their arms are level with the keyboard when they reach out and touch the keys, and their feet are firmly grounded on the floor or on a foot rest. While "sitting tall" they are asked to touch their shoulders to their ears (tension) and then drop the shoulders (relaxation). Touching shoulders to ears becomes a part of their daily warm-up and is one of the first activities in each lesson for several months. In a most graphic way, this teaches students proper sitting position and the feeling of relaxed shoulders. I also want students to leave their first lesson with a model of basic hand position. This is accomplished through forming the hand in a cluster. A flat hand is transformed into a cluster by slowly drawing the finger tips together until they form a straight line and are touching. The thumb tip gently touches the side of the second finger. All fingernails are showing as they line up together (see Examples 2 and 3). We discover that a cluster is a combination of curves, and that each finger is touching the flat surface (be it tabletop or keyboard) on the tip of its bone. With this model, beginning students learn to play their fifth finger on its tip, and the thumb has a curved shape and plays on the corner of the nail. From their very first lesson, students experience the elements of good hand shape.

Example 2: The flat hand.
Example 3: The curved hand.

Further reinforcement of fingertips comes in the form of a warm-up drill where students create a perfectly round circle between the tip of a finger and the thumb. This is our "Game of Os" and it eventually culminates when I test their nail joint strength by pushing on the nail joint, attempting to make it collapse. Students consistently demonstrate that they have developed amazing nail joint strength in the first few weeks of instruction.

Beginning hand rotation 

Finger numbers are learned by placing the palms of the hands together and chanting "These are fin-gers num-ber _____" as they touch the appropriate fingers together to the beat of the chant. Before mixing them up, finger numbers are first experienced in numerical order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. In the second or third week, the hands can be placed on a flat surface in playing position and the game becomes more challenging with the question "Which are fingers number ______?" Students answer "These are fingers number ______", tapping their fingers in rhythm. A bit more challenging is "Which is right hand number _____?" or "Which are left hand ____ and ____?", answered with "These are left hand ____ and ____!" 

When finger numbers are secure, another technical step takes the form of the Finger Twister of the Week, found in the Warm-Ups and Technical Drills section on their Home Practice assignment. These Finger Twisters are simply a series of finger numbers that I devise to reinforce a technical gesture. My goal is for students to play a comfortable rotation gesture early in their training. Their first Finger Twister of the Week is:

For each grouping of notes they sing (yes, sing) "Rock the hand to play the skips." In preparation for playing these rotations, they raise an arm in the air and rock the hand back and forth. The non-playing hand grasps the forearm bones and feels the radical movement of these bones as the hand rotates. Then students "shadow play" the exercise in the air, singing "Rock the hand to play the skips" as they rotate between fingers 1 and 3, then 2 and 4, and finally 3 and 5; and the exercise is finally played on white keys. Forearm rotation is the primary focus, but the cluster has taught the students that fingers contact the keys on the tip of the bone. Good hand shape is an integral part of each technical exercise. A variation of this rocking exercise occurs when the Finger Twister of the Week becomes:

Rotational motion is employed to play the skips, and steps are played with a traditional lifting and striking of the individual fingers. 

Learning to rotate the hand is tremendously helpful when students are asked to play legato phrases in the repertoire. Rotation creates a natural legato as the hand tips from one finger to the next. The command of legato and staccato sounds is facilitated when students frequently hear a model of these sounds, so it is important that I demonstrate both the sound (the goal) and the technique (the means) for them. Students can often produce an effective staccato when they hear the model, and it is helpful when elementary students are taught that the best staccato starts with the finger on the key. 

Example 4

Increasing the challenge 

The Finger Twisters of the Week are varied and increase in challenge. Gradually, they prepare students for playing major five-finger patterns, first on C and then on G. Students are taught to shape the pattern dynamically and to end with tones I—V—I, thus preparing for the sound of a cadence (see Example 4).

When students understand the concept of whole steps and half steps, they can build five-finger patterns that involve black keys. It is possible to cover all white key positions playing around the circle of fifths if one starts on F: F — C — G — D — A — E — B. 

After comfortably playing all of the major five-finger patterns starting on white keys, students are then ready to play hands together around the entire circle of fifths. I suggest that B major is the most difficult of all five-finger patterns. That challenge readily turns B major into their favorite position!

Time to celebrate 

By the end of the first year of study, most students can play all major five-finger patterns. There is a special celebration when they can play them all proceeding up the keyboard chromatically, keeping a steady beat—with their eyes closed! This takes practice, and at first students are allowed extra time between positions. The goal, however, is (see Example 5): 

Example 5

Another five-finger pattern drill that my students practice towards the end of their first year is to play one hand twice as fast as the other, as seen in Example 6. 

This exercise can be challenging and productive for several years as students add minor and diminished patterns to the routine and play in a variety of tempi.

Example 6

Beginning key signatures 

A five-finger pattern is not an entire key. Although not a specifically "technical" exercise, the Major Key Study, based on a major five-finger pattern, is most helpful when learning key signatures. In this drill the RH plays the major five-finger pattern and the LH crosses over to add the sixth degree and then plays the seventh degree as a leading tone to the tonic (see Example 7).

Example 7

When students "summarize" the Major Key Study, a giant step is accomplished toward playing traditional cadence patterns. The summary is a series of blocked intervals played hands together— fingers 1 and 5 only (see Example 8):

Example 8

For the traditional I—IV— I—V7—I cadence pattern, students insert the middle voice— which turns out to be the half step from the major five-finger pattern (see Example 9).

Example 9

Beginning hand independence 

Hand coordination is a special challenge for many elementary pianists, especially when the hands are asked to play different rhythms simultaneously. My students find the playing of five-finger patterns, one hand twice as fast as the other, to be extremely helpful preparation for these coordination challenges. Another form of preparation comes when students always tap and count their pieces before playing. Yes… always. With the key cover closed, students count a two-measure lead in ("1 2 3 4 | 1 2 read-y play") and the piece is played with each hand tapping its rhythms. They continue throughout the piece to count aloud in a steady beat. The benefit of this practice procedure cannot be over-emphasized.

Technic is always first 
Most of the technical exercises my students practice are taught by rote. This allows them to focus on the sound, hand and finger shape, sitting position, and arm relaxation—as opposed to focusing on reading notes and rhythms. In an attempt to ensure that technique is a part of each day's practice routine, the technical portion of the assignment and warm-up drills are placed at the top of the Home Practice assignment, and we always start each lesson with those drills. Hopefully, my routine in the lesson becomes their routine during home practice.p

Most of the technical exercises my students practice are taught by rote. This allows them to focus on the sound, hand and finger shape, sitting position, and arm relaxation—as opposed to focusing on reading notes and rhythms. In an attempt to ensure that technique is a part of each day's practice routine, the technical portion of the assignment and warm-up drills are placed at the top of the Home Practice assignment, and we always start each lesson with those drills. Hopefully, my routine in the lesson becomes their routine during home practice.

Marvin Blickenstaff is nationally recognized for his teaching, lecturing, performing, and publishing. He currently maintains a private studio in the Philadelphia area and teaches at The New School for Music Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Blickenstaff is the former Board President of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy and is on the Executive Planning Committee of the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy. In 2007, the on-line journal Piano Pedagogy Forum published tributes to Blickenstaff honoring his contribution to piano teaching in America, and he was named Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He was honored in 2009 with MTNA's highest award, the MTNA Achievement Award.

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